On Tuesday, Governor Scott delivered his yearly budget address outlining his ideas and priorities for the State’s budget. As I listened to his remarks, I found myself reflecting on both this speech and his State of the State address earlier this month. In both, he highlighted affordability, housing, and safety as major priorities of his administration.
I appreciate the Governor’s priorities and think that many Vermonters of all political persuasions agree that these are extremely important issues. What happens next is the more challenging part. What paths do we take to solve these challenges? How do we work together to find common ground? Over the past seven years, the Governor has often spoken of working across party lines. However, compared with years past, the tone of his speeches this year was quite condescending and scolding. This is not a great way to start the conversation and work across the aisle. He also repeatedly made sure to point out that the legislature is a super-majority of Democrats, trying to deflect today’s accumulated challenges onto the one year that Democrats have had a super-majority.
In the budget address on Tuesday, Governor Scott stated that “everyday Vermonters need us to represent them,” implying that many of our Representatives and Senators are out of touch with their communities. While I cannot argue with the idea that those in Montpelier must represent those who elect them, it is important to recognize that the legislature is made up of these “everyday Vermonters”. Legislators are truly on the ground across the whole state in every coffee shop, grocery store, local sports gym, church, mosque, synagogue, and bookstore in their daily lives. They too are hearing from the wide range of constituents in their communities and are talking directly with Vermonters every day. As one Representative stated to me in the Statehouse after the speech “It is remarkable that he talks about working together when we almost never see him walking through the halls of the statehouse or asking most of us for meetings to ask us what we are hearing back in our home districts.”
With the list of his “priorities” in mind, I began looking into some statistics to really review where we have been and where we are now are on many metrics related to his priority topics. I've found that the Governor is right. Some important statistics relevant to his priorities have gone in the wrong direction throughout his service as Governor. Of course, there are massive forces outside of the control of our state leaders and Governor, such as the massive impact of the pandemic or this summer’s flooding, to take into account. And we must give credit where it is due in recognizing that the Governor, with the help of a federal infusion of resources unmatched in any other state, handled the challenges of COVID-19 relatively well, especially in comparison to some of his Republican colleagues around the country. Taking these realities into account, let’s look at how Vermont has fared over the past seven years in comparison to the rest of the country.
Vermont is less affordable for working people than it was 7 years ago when the Governor took office. Low-income Vermonters are struggling more and more every year to pay their bills and put food on their tables. While the legislature has taken huge strides to create and expand programs that will help those who are struggling economically- such as investing in our childcare system and implementing universal school meals- the Governor has routinely vetoed these bills. We only have universal school meals and universal childcare because the Democrats and Progressives over-rode his veto.
Between 2017 and 2022, Vermont’s median home sale price rose 50%, compared to the US median home sale price increase of 42%. Reports from the last year have shown that we have the second highest grocery costs, the 5th highest healthcare costs, and the 11th highest childcare costs in the country. Meanwhile, Vermonter’s income between 2017 and 2022 has risen about 2% slower than the national average according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Additionally, we just read in the news that Vermont missed an opportunity to draw down approximately $4 million of federal support for meals for vulnerable Vermont children. The reason given for not enrolling in the program cost was because of administrative costs of implementing the program, but for a small 50/50 split of admin costs, we could have drawn down those funds and saved Vermonter's tax dollars as well as made sure our most vulnerable children would get the food they need to help them succeed.
The Housing crisis is far worse today than it was 7 years ago. As mentioned, the sale price of Vermont homes is increasing at a pace faster than the US average. Though we do not have good data for the pricing of rental units through the years, many of us have heard anecdotally or know through experience how sharply rent has increased these past few years. We are also facing a scarcity of housing as our increasing population outpaces the construction of residential houses and apartments. Additionally, we are seeing a huge increase in second home ownership and investors buying up units to convert into short term rentals.
As a result of our housing crisis, we have seen the number of unhoused individuals grow tremendously in the past few years. Compared to 2017, our unhoused population in 2022 was up 169%, making Vermont the second highest homeless population per capita in the country (compared to 10th highest in 2017). And we are not growing our infrastructure to meet the needs of our unhoused population. In 2017, we were short 264 year-round shelter beds; now, we are 1,833 beds short. Suffice it to say, Vermont is failing to meet the needs of our most vulnerable populations.
The same is true for public safety. While there has been a clear nationwide trend of rising crime (specifically property crime) over the last few years, Vermonters are experiencing a steeper rise than the national average.
Before I dive too deeply into Vermont numbers vs. National numbers, I feel it’s important to point out that property crime in Vermont and nationally has drastically fallen from its peak in the early 90’s. We certainly have seen an increase in crime of about 33% since 2020, but our crime rate right now is about 55% lower than it was in 2012 and 161% lower than it was in 1990. Looking at trends over time, we are far safer now than we have been historically.
That being said, you can also see from the data that we have seen a sharper rise in property crime since 2020 than the rest of the nation.
Violent crimes are unfortunately a different story. Vermont’s rate of violent crime is still well below the national average, but while the US rates have stayed relatively consistent over the past decade, our numbers have doubled since a low point in 2014 and they have clearly gone up significantly since Governor Scott took office in 2017. But we must connect the dots: being houseless or having a substance abuse disorder will clearly lead to more crime. It is economic and pharmaceutical causes, not bad humans that is the root of the problem. Let's make sure we work to address the root of the challenges rather than the simple, and very expensive, rhetoric of getting tough on the crimes of poverty.
(Source: Crime Data Explorer)
Rate per 100,000 people, by year
When Governor Scott talks about crime trends, he tends to focus on the last 10 years as he did in his State of the State address, and he does not tend to acknowledge national trends. When you look at just a piece of the chart it does not tell the whole story and can be quite misleading and disconcerting (as you can see from the graph below).
I say this not to discount people’s legitimate fear of what crime can, and is, doing to our communities. However, we do need to do everything we can to create safer communities and mitigate crime by addressing its common root causes: poverty, substance abuse disorder, and mental health.
The focus on putting more people behind bars does not help address these root causes, and it costs everyday Vermonters. According to a 2022 report, Vermont spends on average $57,615 per year keeping an individual incarcerated, more than the countrywide average of $33,274. Spending more on our incarcerated population is not necessarily a bad thing. It can create a more humane system that works with prisoners to receive education and supports to help them reintegrate into society in better shape than they were in before their incarceration. However, we must do better. A 2018 study on recidivism rates found that 83% of released prisoners were arrested again within 9 years of their release. Increasing punishment and putting more individuals in prisons for longer will not solve this issue and will cost taxpayers handily.
I think that most people recognize that property crimes are often committed by people who are in poverty who need money for food or clothing, by people facing substance use disorder who need help with their addiction, or by other people who are in desperate need of something in order to survive. By putting these people in prison and not giving them the help and support that they need to improve their situation, and by ignoring the growing gap between wealthy Vermonters and the lowest income Vermonters, we are doing a huge disservice to our communities and fellow Vermonters.
The real question we must ask ourselves is the following: is it better to spend millions of dollars putting more people behind bars, or to invest a fraction of that money in housing, education, food, and wrap-around services to help get folks back on their feet, get jobs and be better able to balance their needs?
The crux of the Governor’s argument is that we cannot raise taxes on already overburdened working Vermonters, and I agree. We know that so many people in our community are struggling as is. We have the added burden of the lingering damage of last year’s flooding and the need to build more resilient communities so that when (not if) the next flood comes, we can reduce the damage and bounce back faster. We’ve also seen how impactful investing in economic programs can be. The investment in childcare we made last year is a game changer for the working families of Vermont. We do not need to raise taxes on low and moderate-income Vermonters in order to invest in programs like this. We need to reprioritize where we are putting our money, and we must make sure that those who have the exorbitant means from 40 years of trickle up economics are paying their fair share to rebuild our communities so that working people can have a shot at economic stability
I encourage you to contact your legislators and the Governor’s office on these issues and ask for bold laws to tackle the housing crisis, economic struggles, and climate insanity as well as other issues that we know are pressing on you every day.
Lt Governor David Zuckerman